For An Unknown Soldier (2014)

For Tenor Solo, Children's Choir, Chorus (SATB) and Orchestra   50 minutes

Faced with the immensity of the First World War, I thought it wise not to attempt to say too much. I wanted to try to tell the story of just one man, an unknown soldier, as vividly as possible. At first, I had the idea of using actual letters from a soldier, or sailor – letters home, or extracts from a diary, perhaps. Portsmouth Grammar School’s archivist, John Sadden, provided me with a great deal of first-hand material, as well as research projects by pupils exploring as much as they could find out about individual Portsmuthians who were killed in action.

I studied many fascinating first-hand accounts of warfare, and touching letters to loved ones. The cumulative effect of reading them was powerful, but I did not find any that could be sung effectively. I needed a more concentrated form of text, something more distilled, and so I turned to poetry. I realised that many poems written during the war were also, in a sense, letters home.

From my reading, a sequence of poems gradually emerged which suggested to me one man’s journey through the war: beginning with enthusiasm and the decision to enlist; going on to discover the reality of war, and finding death on the battlefield; the grief of those left behind. Four of the poets I have chosen were killed in the war; all were writing during it. I chose poems that had the immediacy of first-hand experience, or suggested the voices – messages, opinions – in someone’s head. Particularly in the First World War, the experiences of men and women were quite different, so I have set some poems for male voices only, or female voices only. I was aware that I was writing for young voices near the age of many of those who fought, as well as for children.

The sequence begins and ends with less familiar poems by the most famous First World War poet, Wilfred Owen, killed a few days before the armistice in 1918. 1914 describes the outbreak of war. Monro’s The Poets are Waiting conjures a tumult of voices raised in favour of battle. One of Wilfred Owen’s best known poems, Dulce et decorum est, was originally dedicated ‘To Jessie Pope’, and Pope’s taunting verses in The Call voice sentiments widely enough shared to be sung by children in the playground. Charles Hamilton Sorley was killed in the Battle of Loos in 1915, at the age of twenty, so there is prescience in All the Hills and Vales Along, an image of men marching to their deaths. Contrasting with this male sound, young women alone sing Women at Munition Making, and children sing of using munitions in the traditional marching song The British Grenadiers.

Lieutenant William Noel Hodgson died a few days after writing Before Action, killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Male voices share his plea ‘Make me a man, O Lord’; the solo tenor finishes his prayer ‘Help me to die, O Lord.’ Between the verses, young women sing a letter To You in France. (Helen Dircks wrote two books of verse, in 1918 and 1920.)

Dead Man’s Dump is the longest text in the sequence, a dramatic and harrowing account written by Isaac Rosenberg in 1917. He was killed the following year.

Ivor Gurney survived gassing, but with his mental and physical health wrecked. To His Love is a letter home after the death of a comrade. Its opening, ‘He’s gone,’ is echoed by the voices of children in another traditional song, Tom’s Gone to Hilo. In Marian Allen’s The Wind on the Downs, her beloved lives on in her mind. An Imperial Elegy appears to look down on the battlefield of Europe from somewhere above.

Commissioned by the Portsmouth Grammar School and the London Mozart Players.

First performance: 9th November 2014, The Portsmouth Grammar School Chamber Choir (director; Sam Gladstone), London Mozart Players, Castle Primary School Choir (director; Andrew Jackson), Nicholas Sharratt (tenor), Nicholas Cleobury (conductor), Portsmouth Cathedral.

Instrumentation

Equal Voice choir, Choir SATB, Orchestra: 0.2.0.2 – 2.1.0.0 – Timp – 1Perc (Bass Drum, Snare Drum, Tam Tam, Tubular Bell (C#)) – Str (min. 8.6.4.4.2)